Howard French has written a passionate, heartbreaking and ultimately heartbroken book about covering West Africa’s blood-soaked descent into a nightmare of war and greed as a reporter for the New York Times in the 1990s. The book is called A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa, and, much as French wished it otherwise, there is far more tragedy than hope in it.
It has become something of a tradition for the correspondents of America’s major newspapers to write a tour d’ horizon upon concluding a stint on the continent. After David Lamb’s The Africans was published to commercial and critical success in 1983, we had Blaine Harden’s Africa: Dispatches From a Fragile Continent in 1991; Alan Cowell’s Killing the Wizards: Wars of Power and Freedom From Zaire to South Africa in 1992; Keith B. Richburg’s Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa in 1997; and Bill Berkeley’s The Graves Are Not Yet Full: Race, Tribe and Power in the Heart of Africa in 2001. Since Lamb’s time, the books have grown progressively bleaker, and French’s may be the bleakest of all. Although French abhors the war porn he believes dominates most coverage of Africa, the continent’s rot has advanced to a point where it is almost impossible to look beyond it. It is a situation that angers and sickens French all the more because he has a deeper and more profound connection to the continent than most journalists.
French fell in love with Africa before he gave any thought to journalism. Growing up in the United States, he was reminded by his proud African-American parents of black achievements at every turn. His father, a doctor, moved the family to Ivory Coast so that he could run a regional health program. After graduating from college, French spent six years living in Abidjan, first as a translator and university lecturer and finally as a freelance reporter. He married an Ivorian, learned several African languages and read widely and deeply about African culture and history.
He writes that he accepted the Times‘s West Africa bureau in 1994 “as a personal challenge.” He would not become a “fireman” chasing one disaster after another to satisfy what he regarded as “the world media’s insatiable market in images of horror.” He would not make heroes out of Westerners rushing to the rescue. He would show his readers Africa’s strengths as well as its weaknesses.
It was not to be. The blaze already licking at West Africa when French returned burst into an inferno, forcing French to play the fireman after all and eventually burning him so badly that he felt lucky to escape. Sent to Mobutu’s Zaire in 1995 to cover the outbreak of the ebola virus, he was wary of “rushing toward another lurid African mess that, thanks to the magic of television, had become the global story of the week.” Within a year, he would find himself covering the collapse of Zaire itself and the death of millions sucked into its conflicts. As he struggled to make sense of what was happening–and especially the disastrous consequences of the Clinton Administration’s decision to hand a wide swath of the continent over to a brand-new set of dictators (often euphemistically described as “strong-men”), starting with Rwanda’s Paul Kagame–Africa fell further and further outside the orbit of world attention.
Following US foreign policy is part of a Times correspondent’s job, and French’s book gives an unusually depressing account of American hypocrisy and mendacity toward Africa. The Clinton Administration wished Africa well. But it was not willing to risk American lives, treasure or votes even to halt the most gargantuan African tragedies, much less to foster African democracy, human rights or economic development. The “African Renaissance” the President was eager to trumpet turned out in large part to amount to opening the doors for American corporations eager to extract the continent’s resources. Struggling democracies such as Mali’s received little or no help (though when one considers the fate of such countries as Nigeria and Angola, which attracted more solicitous notice, perhaps indifference is a blessing in disguise). After the killing of eighteen US Rangers in Somalia, the Administration declined in 1994 to intervene when Rwandan Hutus began slaughtering their Tutsi compatriots by the hundreds of thousands, or even to call what was happening a genocide. “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [Congressional] election?” French quotes Susan Rice, a rising young black star who would soon be named Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, as saying in April of that year.
Paul Kagame’s Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front finally relieved the Administration of this embarrassment by invading Rwanda and seizing power there. The Clintonites rewarded him with a shower of patronage. In a further attempt to evade responsibility, they allowed Rwanda’s new Tutsi leaders and their Ugandan allies to carve up Zaire, now known again as Congo, while pursuing their vendetta against Hutu refugees hiding in that country. And the Administration turned a blind eye toward the Western businessmen who formed a series of unholy alliances with Rwandan, Ugandan and other warlords feasting on Zaire’s carcass to maintain control over West Africa’s oil, diamond, cobalt and other natural resources. The result has been the Congo wars, known in Africa as “Africa’s World War.” As French writes about the onset of the wars:
Since independence, instability and bad governance had been Africa’s twin Achilles’ heels. They were the two internal weaknesses most immediately responsible for the continent’s persistent misery, and the fighting that had just begun under Washington’s generous political cover would spew both of these plagues across Central Africa, sowing political unrest, armed conflict and humanitarian disasters for at least the next decade.
If one moment symbolizes the US-African relationship chronicled in this book, it’s when Clinton’s UN envoy Bill Richardson visited Zaire in 1997. In the midst of his efforts to engineer the departure of longtime US ally Mobutu Sese Seko in favor of America’s new, Rwandan-backed favorite, Laurent Kabila, Richardson invited French to accompany him on a side trip to rebel-held Kisangani. Richardson’s intention was to demonstrate Washington’s concern for the Hutu refugees Kabila’s forces had been massacring. “There was an absurd proposition behind the stopover: a photo-op amid a holocaust,” French writes. Kisangani was the “innermost river station” of the Belgian Congo, the last place from which boats leave up the Congo River, a brooding place of innumerable horrors. On the day he and Richardson arrived, a fresh surge of Hutu refugees confirmed that in the forest only thirty miles away, Kabila’s men were engaged in massacring Hutus, including women and children. Aides quickly ushered Richardson toward a distraught mother carrying an infant.
Like any American politician, the envoy reached for the baby as he spoke a few sympathetic words to the mother. “Richardson’s face bore the most basic expression of human sympathy and recognition of life’s fragility, and his pity appeared entirely genuine,” French writes. But this was Africa, not America. The moment Richardson reached for the baby, it died.
Needless to say, the baby’s death didn’t make the US evening news. And despite Richardson’s assurances, Washington has made sure the revenge massacres of the Hutus and all the others who have died in the Congo wars have never really registered on the American consciousness, although at an estimated 3 to 4 million, the number of dead is truly astounding–far greater than the 800,000 memorialized during the recent ceremonies marking Rwanda’s genocide or indeed in any other conflict since World War II.
Seeking to account for the West’s indifference to Congo’s nightmare, French does not spare the media. He blames himself for failing to do the “rudimentary ethnic detective work” that would have allowed him to spot Zaire’s “Banyamulenge uprising” for the Rwandan-inspired Tutsi coup that it was. And he feels that in chasing the tale of Mobutu’s fall, he and other reporters lost sight of the human carnage taking place inside Zaire’s rainforest. But he reserves his most serious criticism for the New Yorker writer Philip Gourevitch, whose reporting on the Rwandan genocide–later published as a book, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which won a National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction–made a deep impression on President Clinton. In French’s view, Gourevitch mistakenly applied the template of the Holocaust to Rwanda’s genocide, comparing the Tutsis to the European Jews and Kagame’s regime to Israel. As the Congo wars got under way, Gourevitch’s pieces became enormously influential in Washington. “Emotionally overpowering but deeply flawed analogies with Israel and with European Jewry and the Holocaust,” he writes, “began to drive Washington’s policies in Central Africa.”
French believes that in portraying the Tutsis as unalloyed victims, Gourevitch turned a wrenching history of intercommunal struggle into a facile morality tale–with serious implications for the American policy-makers who accepted it. “The Tutsi, unlike Europe’s Jews,” he writes, “were a small minority that had enjoyed feudal tyrannies in Rwanda and neighboring Burundi for centuries. In Burundi they perpetrated genocide against the Hutu three times in a generation, and in both countries they were committed to winning or retaining power by force of arms.” French says that Gourevitch, whose girlfriend’s brother was Clinton spokesman James Rubin, not only played an important role in selling Laurent Kabila to Washington but downplayed the Rwandan-backed slaughter of the Hutu refugees in Congo. French is not alone in his disagreement with Gourevitch. Indeed, it could be argued that Gourevitch’s readiness to view the Hutu-Tutsi conflict through the prism of the Holocaust is but another version of the intellectual laziness French notes among so many Western reporters and others, who insist on defining Africa and its problems in Western terms rather than making the effort to learn enough about Africa to begin to understand it on its own ethnic and political terms. But I would add another reason for America’s lack of interest in the Congo dead: In Congo, unlike in Rwanda, the murder, rape and mayhem continues to this day. With the need to act still apparent enough to tickle our collective conscience, we do not care to look too closely.
And, human nature being what it is, very few outsiders are ever going to care enough to put Africa’s interests ahead of their own. Given this, one wishes that French had shared more of his thoughts about what Africans themselves can do to improve matters, regardless of what the West does. How can Africa rectify the weakness that has bedeviled its relations with the rest of the world ever since the days of the slave trade?
Early in the book, French retells the story of Affonso, the King of the Kongo, who wrote to the king of Portugal in 1526 to deplore “the monstrous greed” that led his fellow Africans to sell even members of their own families in exchange for Western goods. The king of Portugal’s reply was “brutal in its simplicity,” French writes. “Kongo,” he said, “had nothing else to sell.”
Brutal though it is, the king’s reply still stands. The vast majority of Africans still lack the means to buy or make the goods they need and want, including such basics as rudimentary medicine, clean water and elementary schooling. Far too often, Africa’s ruling classes are willing to kill or essentially enslave their fellow citizens or consign them to lives of misery in exchange for a shot at a few foreign luxuries. (We are quick to condemn such “vampire elites” even as we take entirely for granted the Western, middle-class lifestyle to which they aspire and see no other means of gaining.) Colonialism was sold to European and American publics as a humanitarian effort to deal with the wars, slave-raiding and economic exploitation that resulted in the late nineteenth century from this historic imbalance in Africa’s terms of trade, internal and external. When that project failed to solve the underlying problem, the West erected African nation-states in its own image. Now these states are falling to pieces. The spectacular failure of both models has left us right back where King Affonso started: “Corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated.”
But perhaps it is churlish to ask French to answer such questions when he has already told us so much in this book. By the time he fell ill with malaria in 1997, French, like so many others, was burned out. “I began to conclude that Africa was starting to kill me,” he writes. “So many loves had kept me going here: the beauty and the unfussy grace of the people, the amazing food–yes, the food–music rich beyond comparison, the sheer immediacy of human contact, the pleasure of living by my wits. But the grim truth was that a single mosquito bite had contained enough deadly force to lay me very low indeed.” One can only hope that after a period away, he regains his strength and returns for another round with Africa, in all her loves and her sadnesses, too.